From the category archives:

Interviews with Poets

Diane Seuss’s most recent collection is Four-Legged Girl (2015, Graywolf Press). She is also the author of It Blows You Hollow (New Issues Press) and Wolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open, which won the Juniper Prize. Still Life with Two Dead Peacocks and a Girl is forthcoming in 2018 from Graywolf Press. Seuss was raised in rural southwestern Michigan and currently teaches at Kalamazoo College, where she is Writer in Residence.

Emilia Phillips, Interviews Editor: One of my loves of Four-Legged Girl is its sleight of hand—the dramatic irony (“Free beer, I’ll say, though there is no beer”) and the misdirections (look over here at this outrageous thing soon undermined by something devastating)—that awes and bewilders the reader. Reading your poems, I’m never sure where they’re going to go. Sometimes I don’t even know where the titles are headed! (“I went downtown and went down // on the We Buy Gold guy.”) How important is it for you to explode the reader’s expectations? Are you yourself surprised by your poems?

Diane Seuss: I am as surprised by the turns my poems take as I am by the turns my life has taken. It’s part of my aesthetic, I guess: Flummoxed expectations. It’s vaudevillian, life’s often shitty vaudeville act, and also rural Midwestern, where the humor sort of sidles up against the bad luck story. For instance, my grandmother threw a can of pork and beans out of the window at their hunting dog, Dan, who wouldn’t stop howling. Her aim was too good, and she killed him. She called the gravedigger, who owed her a favor, and he buried him. The next morning, Dan was on the porch ready for his morning table scraps. He’d woken up and clawed his way out of the grave. Similarly, my great-grandfather hit a guy over the head with a frozen fish and killed him. He left the family and went on the lam for a couple of years to escape punishment, only to find out, when he finally snuck home for Christmas, that the guy hadn’t died, had only been knocked out cold. Maybe it’s a poetic structure born of ancestral memory, the DNA of people who lived by the grace or punishment of weather, who experience unlikely resurrections. I suppose that I don’t consciously pull the rug out from under the reader, but I am not opposed to the reader feeling destabilized by the poem’s teetering reality.

EP: Your idea of “poetic structure born of ancestral memory” makes me think about the idea of muscle memory and writing. I used to play trumpet. I played regularly from third grade until I was a senior in high school. When I’m listening—in a meeting, a lecture, a poetry reading—I often catch myself fingering out scales or a particular etude I had to learn for a state orchestra audition. And how many years ago was that? It’s all muscle memory—somehow I subconsciously connect the act of listening to the act of playing. My therapist said I was also actively engaging in emotional control in playing trumpet (and has since encouraged me to play again) because I practiced breathing control.

There are times when I sit down to write and it has the same feel of engaging in a muscle memory, so much so that I sometimes tap out rhythms and stresses with those same three fingers on my thigh. When you sit down and write, do you have the feeling of engaging a muscle memory? Is there a figurative poetic muscle we can shape and hone? Can it become fatigued?

DS: Damn. Head=spinning. “I subconsciously connect the act of listening to the act of playing.” Your etude fingers represent an instance in which muscle memory goes right. Then there are the memory grooves that get dug by trauma, in which the body/mind responds to some similarity in the present that calls up the traumatic event. I wouldn’t say that version of things is muscle memory going wrong so much as being potentially habitual and therefore potentially entrapping. Maybe writing is how we chew off our own paw, work our way out of the trap.

There are certain memories that for me feel particularly numinous. For instance, I am seven years old, my father is dying. Children then weren’t allowed in hospital rooms until the very end, so I’d only seen him wave to my sister and me from the 7th floor window until the day my mother took us to his room to say goodbye. My older sister sits in the naugahyde chair and stares at the TV with her arms crossed over her chest, pissed as hell at the whole situation. I am too young to know better, and shuffle to his bed when my mother presses the small of my back in that direction. His head is tilted on the pillow, his body sheeted, as if he was posed by nurses to look as unalarming as possible. His abdomen is swollen with a tumor, and I wonder if he’s going to have a baby. He takes my hand. His hand is cold. The lump in my throat is so large it hurts, as if it were made of hobnail glass. My father wears a white hospital robe with blue stars. There are candy orange, lemon, and lime fruit slices on the bed table. I remember it all: the quality of light, or lack thereof, the green walls, the stiff sheets, his face, emaciated, strange, and sad. The scene exists in me like a pool of water animals know how to find when they’re thirsty.

When I sit to write, my body/mind seems to naturally visit this pool, and others like it, spring fed sites that have garnered the energy of archetype through years of revisiting. Even if I am not writing that scene, it primes me for a dive, and I guess, for me, that is the source of everything, where the unbearable gives birth to language and imagination. Maybe that’s the baby my father’s ghost is carrying. This is probably less muscle memory than the figurative poetic muscle you reference. It represents a memory site of complex, incompatible feelings—tenderness, resistance, fear, love, horror, sweetness—that the language in poems can approach.

I like your question about poetic muscle becoming fatigued. Yes, this happens, doesn’t it? The spring gets fed up and stops feeding and the pool becomes stagnant, loses its sheen. The bluegills stop leaping. You know what I mean; you’ve visited that swimming hole and found nothing but sludge. I guess this is the difference between obsession and compulsion. Obsession is alive, compulsion is habitual, therefore deadening. It reminds me of the way we hang glass balls from pine trees because it’s December 25th, or sink chicken eggs into food coloring because resurrection married vestiges of paganism and the Paas corporation was born. Maybe compulsion is by nature conservative. When I find myself taking a habitual approach I must abandon my father or revivify him through an imaginative or formal or intellectual leap. Or, as my friend Victor used to say as he walked toward the Xerox room where he spent his 9-5: “Titties up, girls. Onto the next trap!”

EP: After reading what you just wrote about the springs of memory, I started thinking about that urge that’s a nostalgia for nostalgia, a want to want. I look at a poem like “It’s like this” which opens, “The prayers of non-believers are beautiful like women / desperate to be beautiful are beautiful,” and I see this at work, even celebrated. But the more I sit here at my desk in my dim office with all the shades drawn, the more I think that all poems express a want to want, and all poems in the past tense are a nostalgia for nostalgia.

Is the bridge out on this road? If not, can you take the wheel?

DS: Could “wanting to want, nostalgia for nostalgia,” be our version of Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility?” To remember having felt is perhaps more interesting than feeling, maybe that’s what Wordworth was getting at. Are we describing an additional level of removal from original feeling or experience? Sort of a copy of a copy of a copy?

Nostalgia was originally viewed as a disease, a fatal homesickness. The sound of bagpipes could kill a Scottish soldier abroad. “Sanitary Memoirs of the War” (1867) tells us that in the first two years of the Civil War there were “2588 cases of nostalgia, and 13 deaths from this cause.” I’m interested in the kind of yearning that can kill a person, an estrangement so vast that death is the only answer. (My uncle would say “booze is the only answer,” but he, too, is dead).

Is nostalgia memory + yearning? Can we yearn without sentimentalizing or sanitizing the past? Is the lyric mode sort of a narrowing gyre that delivers us back to the womb we yearn for? The current trend in contemporary American poetry (there are so many poetries) seems to be anti-nostalgia, a lift-off from home, a rejection of the concept of home, or even (I see this in some of my students’ work) a disconnection from the whole idea of place, of placing oneself. The formal ramifications of this are vast: to cohere is to be old-school, narrative is old-school. To write coherent narrative is to open oneself to being branded as lead-footed or “confessional,” which in my experience is a term rarely applied to men, even when they’re writing in an apparently autobiographical mode, even when they’re looking back. It’s Lot’s wife who turns into a pillar of salt, not Lot. (What kind of name is Lot? What kind of name is Lot’s wife?).

We tend not to speak about Faulkner as nostalgic or locked into a passé rural narrative. Novels must be placed somewhere. The setting is the source of metaphor and the landscape is a large part of what shapes character. Is a coastal urban center a richer site for narratives that reach into history, myth, philosophy, politics, than Yoknapatawpha county? And if a woman writes from her own Yoknapatawpha, will it still be considered mythic, philosophical, political? Maybe part of poetry’s distinctiveness is that is does not have to be placed somewhere. It can float, like song. And yet most poems have some relationship to place, even if that relationship is a deferral, even if that place is nowhere. (“Let us all be from somewhere,” Bob Hicok writes in “A Primer,” “Let us tell each other everything we can.”)

Lucille Clifton writes: “i am accused of tending to the past/as if i made it,/as if i sculpted it/with my own hands. i did not.” I am interested in her verb here. She tends to the past, attends to it, pays attention to it. She certainly does not yearn for it. Later in the poem she calls it “a monstrous unnamed baby” that she nonetheless takes to her breast. She finally names the baby “History.” To tend to the past is to gain the agency to name it. Then the baby herself develops agency: “she is more human now,/learning languages everyday,/remembering faces, names and dates./when she is strong enough to travel/on her own, beware, she will.” Through the speaker’s tending, the monstrous baby becomes a she, and one with an evolving ferocity. The ferocity is earned by the act of remembering.

Four-Legged Girl is about place, and yearning, and a release from yearning, and a reimagining of place. In this collection, much of the yearning originates from a time in my own life which was decidedly unpretty. On a selfhood level, on a gender politics level, I was fucked, and yet, when things felt good, they felt really good, which I guess is what all addicts say. I do not look back because I want to go back—hell no—but because it represents an unsolvable conundrum that has mythic and political and aesthetic implications. I hope to have earned the wilder poems in the book’s last section by having first looked hard at looking back. I tended to that portion of the past. I nursed the monster until I could name her. Nostalgia for nostalgia, which finally led me to a legitimate, present-tense desire. I had to remember desire in order to recalibrate it. And it turns out my desire is for poetry.

EP: How did you come to desire—such a strong word—poetry? Like other desires, can the desire for poetry be dangerous?

DS: It’s possible that the desire for poetry is the only sustainable desire I’ve ever experienced. I learned early that the desire for The Other was, for me, dangerous. I was five or six when I went into a House of Mirrors with my father. He was already sick, would die a couple of years later. I sought him in those mirrors—the light was fluorescent and I could see the blue veins in his temples—but kept running into myself. It hurts to run into a mirror. The Fun House was even worse. Not fun at all. I couldn’t negotiate the rolling barrel. I was stuck in those false constructs, those cuckoo projections, for eons, it seems. My ex-husband left me the day my first book came out. Coincidence? I think not. The title was It Blows You Hollow, and it sure did. Our titles are obnoxiously prognostic. What were Emily Dickinson’s little flutterings of romantic desire up against those beasts she wrote at her lonely desk in her lonely bedroom? (“Narcotics cannot still the Tooth/That nibbles at the soul—“) Lonely begets greatness. Or it can, if you pull your head out of your lonely ass. Half a century, I wandered that Hall of Mirrors, Minotaur in a negligee. Even though I’d been writing since I was a kid, I didn’t realize that poetry was everything I could ever need until I went through menopause.

The desire for poetry is not merely about writing it. Writing it is one symptom of desire, but poetry’s purposes are grander than that. Maybe poetry is not about a desire for something, but is desire itself, untethered from product or object. Lorca writes, in his essential essay on the concept of duende, that “(I)n Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country of the world: their profile wounds like the edge of a barber’s razor.” The thing I love about duende as an alternative to the muse and the angel is that it gives us nothing comfortable to hold onto. It is not aspirational. It promises no heaven. It is not simply about making poems as products of experience; it is more profoundly about the struggle with, the confrontation with death, a death so alive that its profile works on us like a straight razor. Duende may feed lust, but it does not encase lust in the glass casket of the wedding. Its reach is more ambitious than that, and it meets us only at the crossroads where sex and death intersect.

Keats put it forth, in his way, with Negative Capability, that state in which one is “capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Poetry at its best, for me, is the experience of uncertainty, mystery, and doubt without grasping after certainties, knowing that any attempt to concretize our desire via projection—by setting up a household with The Other, for instance—is a temporary panacea at best. This is why I so love and am so terrified by Keats’ “Late Fragment,” written in the margins of his last, unfinished poem while in his final days. “This living hand, now warm and capable/Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold/And in the icy silence of the tomb,/So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights/That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood/So in my veins red life might stream again,/And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—/I hold it towards you.” That, to me, is desire, urgent and impossible, a guilt trip from beyond the grave, the vampiric request that we give him our blood so he may live again. Poetry can be so heartless. So selfish. So opposed to healing, to resolution. And then he makes a hairpin turn into the tender, victorious show-and-tell that enacts everything that poetry can possibly be, the resistance to annihilation: “see—here it is—I hold it toward you.”

EP: After my brother died, I had cancer, and a friend died. I then went into therapy. My therapist said that she would normally have her patients write poems about their experiences. “I won’t have you do that,” she said. “It will be like working in here, and I don’t want that. Besides, you probably write a different kind of poem.” Already I was trying to reconcile—perhaps I should say reckon—all of these things in poems, but, I realize now, not in a way to necessarily heal. She positions poetry as a healer, which I think simplifies the real work of a good poem, and yet I was just talking about the ways that poetry workshops, especially undergraduate ones, have the ability to veer in that direction if one isn’t careful and watchful as the leader or instructor. (In fact, at Drew University here in New Jersey, the graduate school has a class for “non-writers” called “Writing to Heal.”)

I also see many beginning writers especially resort to abstraction when they’re writing about the things they most care about, as if this is the most respectful way to write about these things about which they care the most. As if the physical honors less than the intangible. As if they must strip away the body to get to the soul. But, really, the more I think about it, it’s not about honoring the subject, it’s about egg-handling the self. Of distancing the physical self from pain, emotional or otherwise.

Is there something painful about the alchemization of the meaningful real into the meaningfully poetic? Should poets “wait a while” after a painful event or trauma to write about it, as writing teachers so often suggest, or is there an urgency to write about something as it happens?

DS: I like your use of the word “reckon,” with its inference of accounting, taking stock, surveying. (“Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?”) You, Emilia, reckon with your losses in your poems, as you do so brilliantly in “Scar”—but I don’t believe you’re out to heal them, even if you could. If anything, some degree of healing is a byproduct of a process that is primarily about language. Even that rings false to me, because I’m not sure I believe in healing. We suffer. We die. There’s no healing that. There’s only pacifying it. Given the option, do we really want to heal the scar?

It seems to me that poems can do a few things in relation to suffering. They can be the band on the Titanic, playing Nearer My God to Thee while the ship slides into the drink. They can unearth and embody important ideas that are nonetheless not curative, for instance Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes.” There is nothing in that poem that makes great pain less painful, but there is a kind of testimonial exuberance—here’s how it is, sisters and brothers, and you know, deep down, this is how it is. “The Nerves sit ceremonious—like Tombs.” “A Quartz contentment—like a stone.” We read and nod. Yes. That’s how it is. We know that stony contentment and we know, by reading her, that at least one other human who once inhabited the planet knew it too.

In the same poem, we see the other thing poetry can do, which is the aestheticization of experience. It isn’t merely an act of spilling, but of arranging and framing. She choreographs her perfect rhymes up against her assonant rhymes; she undermines her meter with her dashes, and composes her linked images sequentially, from wood to quartz to stone to lead to ice. And then, in that ungodly ending, the “Hour of Lead” is “remembered, if outlived,/As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –/First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go—” This isn’t the faux liberation of the “Let It Go” song from Disney’s Frozen (“No right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free!”) That would be healing. Dickinson’s letting go is—well, it’s dying, isn’t it? It’s the metaphorical freezing person letting go of life as a synonym for the griever, the one in Great Pain, who is letting go of the grieved-for, of the grief, which is in itself a kind of death.

A “formal feeling” is not simply formality, but form itself, a feeling for form, maybe even the need for form. After great pain we must have form, whether the wake and funeral and after-party, with its macaroni and Jell-O salads, or metrical lines and rhyme, snow and letting go, the “Cold Pastoral” of Keats’ Grecian Urn and Yeats’ mechanical nightingale with its “artifice of eternity.” There is something essential in the hammering of that gold, that making, but I’m not sure it heals in the prescriptive sense. Even Williams, writing poems between patients on prescription pads, did not prescribe; he made. In that making is an aesthetic distancing, which for some of us is a relief. It’s the difference between the daily bearing of the scar and the writing of the scar, which affords a kind of purpose, an important sense of mastery, I would imagine.

There is something to be said for taking time between the Great Pain and the poem. Maybe time allows us to glimpse and build the urn. But some of us—I think of Paul Monette, dying of AIDS, and Plath, dying in her own way—don’t have time to take time. It’s what Kevin Young describes in his brilliant short essay “Deadism,” “a poetry that speaks from the mouths of those gone that aren’t really gone, a poetry of ghosts and haunts. Of haints: not ain’ts.” What we’re left with is the kind of galloping urgency we witness is Monette’s Love Alone:18 Elegies for Rog (“this is how burning feels in the fall/of the final year not like leaves in a blue/October but as if the skin were a paper lantern/full of trapped moths beating their fired wings/and yet i can lie on this hill just above you/a foot beside where I will lie myself/soon soon”) in which he nearly writes, like Keats, from the grave. His enjambments are constructed to appear rushed, disorienting, but still constructed, even then, both burning and urn-ing.

EP: Could you point us to a poem in Four-Legged Girl and tell us why it’s meaningful to you? Do some of your own poems, more than others, become favorites? Can we play toward favorites in our poems?

DS: It’s probably fortunate that it takes quite a bit of time (years) between a manuscript’s inception and its publication, so that by the time it comes out it’s no longer so tied up in how you see yourself. It feels to me a bit like a sloughed-off skin, an artifact of a process that I am now enlisted to represent. That being said, I have poems for which I feel a deeper affection than others (sorry, kids), probably because I remember what it took to get there, both in terms of lived-through and writing experience.

The poem that clangs the loudest for me right now is the one at the hub of the collection: “I can’t listen to music, especially ‘Lush Life.’” It’s the longest poem I’ve written, for one. I was also accompanied, in the writing, by Billy Strayhorn’s brilliant, gut-busting “Lush Life” and Lorca’s “Romance Sonambulo,” and I felt sort of escorted by those two gentlemen, as well, in the process of making the poem. I needed that accompaniment, even if it was illusion, because the material was big, bigger than I am.

I worked on it during the waning of the flowers, that part of summer when things are going to shit (“the brown-eyed susan’s/dark mound wreathed by gold petals like a nipple/bitten black”). The season and the song and “Romance Sonambulo” sort of walked me into the poem’s landscape and image palette. I was infected by Lorca’s surrealism, such a lovely disease, and by Strayhorn’s weird combo of coolness (“jazz and cocktails”) and utter despondency, and then I researched the names of flowers that only bloom at night, and I just followed the tail of the tale, and the image of the image. Writing it felt mystical and ultimate and still somehow objective. I knew I was building an artifact, an urn for tears that would eventually turn to stone.

The last section, which is only fourteen lines long, still surprises me, in that it brings in both muses, completes (though does not resolve) the narrative line, and calls forth the image of the spinning vinyl record, which echoes all the spinnings earlier in the poem and in the book, for which a spinning hub is the defining image. It’s an example of the fact that our poems are smarter than we are. I’m proud of my part in it, and grateful to whatever else colluded in its making.

Rebecca Gayle Howell*: What is the TV show you most love and are most embarrassed to admit to in public?

DS:Ahh, the TV show question. I assume you mean now, as this is written in the present tense. I think I will embarrassedly admit to loving The Price is Right—not just loving it but crying over it. When working class people score a washer and dryer or a ski vacation or a car, for God’s sake, I weep for how happy they are, we are, running around the stage in a sort of religious ecstasy, and I weep that material things make us so happy, that this is what it has all come down to. The price is not right at all, but it feels so effing good.

EP: Thanks, Diane, for this incredible interview. Would you mind providing us with a question to ask our next interviewee?

DS: Thank you, Emilia. Here’s my question for your next interviewee: What material, outside of the poetry/writing realm, has had the most influence on you and your aesthetic?

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor, is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (2016), and three chapbooks including Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poetry appears in Agni, Boston Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. For more information, visit her website:


Rebecca Gayle Howell is the author of Render /An Apocalypse (CSU, 2013), which was selected by Nick Flynn for the Cleveland State University First Book Prize and was a 2014 finalist for ForeWord Review’s Book of the Year. She is also the translator of Amal al-Jubouri’s Hagar Before the Occupation/Hagar After the Occupation (Alice James Books, 2011), which was named a 2011 Best Book of Poetry by Library Journal and shortlisted for Three Percent’s 2012 Best Translated Book Award. Among her awards are fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the Carson McCullers Center, as well as a 2014 Pushcart Prize. Native to Kentucky, Howell is the Poetry Editor at Oxford American. (Photo credit: Juan Pablo Echeverri)

Emilia Phillips, Interviews Editor: I have always been drawn to poetry about work, and the sequence of poems in Render /An Apocalypse offer the reader the muddy and often bloody work of rural life. Do you see an analogy between the work of poetry and manual labor? Is it foolish—or even dangerous—to make too much of the similarities between two different kinds of work?

Rebecca Gayle Howell: I don’t think it’s foolish to think about work. I think we are in real need of a conversation big enough to include globalized war capitalism, exploitation, labor, and the possibility of neighborliness. It’s a necessary conversation, as necessary as our conversation about the global control of women or the brutalities of American racism.

However, for me, there is not a useful analogy between the work my grandparents did on their subsistence farm, or the work my parents did in our diner, and the work I do on a 13″ screen. I try to remember the difference, and I do find value in that.

EP: A student once said that poetry doesn’t reach a large and “diverse” (his word, not mine) enough audience to be meaningful or to make an impact in the conversations about social issues like the ones you just mentioned. Another student argued that if it’s meaningful to even one person, it’s meaningful to the conversation. Where do you see poetry falling on the spectrum of discourse about social issues? Even though newspapers no longer carry poems, do you see poems as being able to bear the “news” of the world?

RGH: bear. I love your right use of that verb.

I think poetry is built to bear the human heart. And some poems are built strong enough to bear it across time and place. “The news” is a part of that, isn’t?—all the sorrow we create by hurting others because we’re just too damned sad or angry or afraid to hurt alone. That’s what I see happening around me. The currency of time’s particulars—Ferguson, Fallujah, Kim Davis—these details are, in one kind of poem, what the frozen swamp is to a Robert Frost poem. The Waste Land lasts, but World War I didn’t. A Missouri boy wrote a few words down because he experienced real fear, and we return to April and its cruelty year after year because we also know a real fear. Does it make the poem irrelevant, the fact the war is over? I think now too of Espada’s Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100. Espada’s small will to put one word in front of the other forever resurrects the working class fallen in the Trade Center attacks. A resurrection is God’s work. How dare a guy from Brooklyn do God’s work! He dares, to borrow from the poem, because music is all we have. I see no reason to not sing out from the news, just as I see no reason to not sing out about the loss of one’s mother or the hope of falling in love.

Although, I want to say I think the first student issues an important warning. The love of a thing, like the knowledge of it, is passed down from generation to generation. If we worry about poetry’s relevance and readership, we must love poetry to each other. And by each other, I don’t mean the other poets at the cocktail party.

EP: How have you sought to take poetry outside of the classroom, outside of the poets’ party?

RGH: Ten years ago I began my public service to poetry when I was the director of The Kentucky Women Writers Conference. It’s the longest running conference of its kind in the country and, although its reputation is held by a regional few, it has hosted everyone from Maya Angelou to Gloria Anzaldua to Louise Glück. My tenure as director was formative for my thinking on literary citizenship. I worked to fundraise a large annual budget so I could expand the WWC’s reach beyond the University’s walls, and I increased its presence from 250 attendees to 2000 in three years by creating literary events that authentically held public interest. I also worked to start an annual symposium called The Sonia Series, which continues today—every year, the WWC now brings in a major writer and/or artist of color to teach in Lexington’s North and East-end neighborhoods (those neighborhoods which are predominantly African American, Latina/o, and working class). It’s named after Sonia Sanchez, who is many times over a former presenter of the Conference, and who, each time she came, asked to serve public schools and community centers (on top of what she was being paid to do). Ms. Sonia knows, and acts like she knows, that sometimes you really do have to bring the mountain to Mohammad.

One measure of my current life is that I write books I hope speak beyond the AWP crowd. My dear friend, the poet Ada Limón, and I have been in recent conversation about the word “accessible,” which is often thrown as an insult, but she thinks, and I agree, is anything but. I receive letters from Render’s readers, commonly from farmers and cooks, and those letters mean everything to me. I am a member of the working class; I started working in my parents’ diner when I was eight years old. Nikky Finney tells her students (of which I am one) “Don’t leave your people behind.”

I suppose another measure is my editorial position with Oxford American. I committed myself to OA in large part because it speaks to a wide and general readership. Our print run for each issue averages at 35,000 copies. That’s a lot of coffee tables and bedside nightstands, a lot of people who are just looking for a good read. And it’s my job to select poetry for them! I couldn’t be happier about that. This summer I also started what I’ve been calling to myself an all-in CSA—in exchange for some of their home grown or home preserved foods, I’ve offered a few months’ instruction to two writers. “CSA” stands here for both Community Supported Agriculture and Community Supported Art. Needless to say, I’ll be eating real good this winter. I encourage other artist-teachers to try it.

EP: I’m thinking of nourishment now. A few students in one of my creative writing workshops were complaining that we read too much for a writing class. Is reading as important—more important—as writing for you? For all writers? Is reading the nourishment we have to take in in order to write?

RGH: Gerald Stern, who was another of my teachers, says “Writers are readers who occasionally write.” That’s been true for me; when I was 12 years old I didn’t fall in love with writing, I fell in love with literature, with its capacity to share a charge, a spark, to act as a conduit for a living electricity, that electricity we call love or grief or wisdom or prayer or….I let its possibility race my heart, change my life. It gave me hope. And I’ve lived my life since in the pursuit of it. I read widely—in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, socio-economics, human rights, protest literature, history, the news—and all of it is dumped into the wormy compost that is my mind, from which my actions spring. (My writing being only one of many actions for which I am responsible.) I think Gerry was warning us, his students, to not turn writing into a masturbatory act. Literature gives us the chance to make real contact with someone else.

When I am teaching I remember his advice in the context of my background in language acquisition. If what we apprenticing writers are acquiring is a fluency in literary Englishes, then we must practice immersion to reach that goal. In other words, we must read. A lot.

EP: What have you recently assigned your students? What have we loved? As a teacher, do you think that guiding a new reader to poetry is as important as writing a great poem. Why or why not? [You can totally answer “no.”]

RGH: Well, I’m not teaching in a traditional classroom at the moment, so I’d be lying if I said I was assigning much these days, but, when I do, my reading lists select widely among genres, as well as across both critical and creative voices. I also love teaching classes wherein the students are responsible for a new poetry collection every session; it helps them develop a consistent practice of reading poetry and requires them to rapidly understand many traditions. All in all, I want my students who are intimidated to become less afraid, and my students who are a little too interested in their own voices to fall in love with others’. And, yes. I do think reading and writing are equally as important. I mean, what’s the goal? If you are Gwendolyn Brooks or if you are student #657 reading Gwendolyn Brooks, I think the goal is the same: let poetry in, let it change you.

EP: I recently had Carl Phillips sign a book for a friend of mine. Carl asked, “Is your friend a poet?” I said that she wasn’t a part of the publishing poetry community, that most of her experience with poetry was through reading. “That’s almost better, I think,” he said. I’ve been thinking about that ever since, and I’ve been committed to giving poetry as a gift. Like all gifts, I think, some will appreciate it, some won’t. Have you ever given poetry—a book, a broadside, a url, etc.—to someone and been surprised by the reaction?

RGH: I gave Alicia Ostriker’s The Old Woman, The Tulip, and The Dog to my doctor a few weeks ago. She thanked me, but in the way you thank a two year old child for giving you a rock. The next appointment she said, “I really loved that book!” (Her shock at herself was the exclamation.) “I mean, I really liked it! I couldn’t sleep one night, and I picked it up and read one poem, and pretty soon I wanted to stay awake just so I could finish it!” That shock is part of the gift, I think.

EP: How was your experience coming to know the poems of Amal al-Jubouri, whose work your translated in Hagar Before the Occupation / Hagar After the Occupation? In some ways, do you see the act of translation as gifting poems to yourself in your own language?

RGH: Translation is an incredibly careful, slow, frustrating, thrilling, turn-you-inside-out experience—maybe it’s closer to say it is a lot like love affair. It changes you.

I admire Amal’s poetry greatly. I learned and still learn a whole lot from her ability to levitate history while she is in the confessional I.

EP: I love this idea of poetry being able to “levitate history,” as it also reminds me of WCW’s lines about “the news”—the present tense of “history”—in poetry:

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there

How do you think poets help define the news, if at all? Classical poets have helped define ancient history. Do you think that a hundred years from now, scholars and historians will look to our poems to understand our day’s news?

RGH: O Lord. I don’t know. When I think about a hundred years from now, I think about who will have water, food, and safety—and who will not. We who are living now have changed the habitat and, with it, the human narrative. Whether I think poetry currently defines the news takes us back to our earlier conversation; what I think is that poetry is built to bear the human heart. I have no doubt, for example, Adrienne Rich’s heart and the words she built to bear it into our time, now without her, have dramatically shaped today’s news. But I don’t believe for one minute she was trying to make news. Ms. Rich lived, imagined, and wrote courageously. Once she decolonized her mind from the patriarchy, she seems to have never flagged in her effort to encourage women everywhere to think, read, write, tell the truth, come out from the shadows of “lies, secrets, and silence.” Do I think I can draw a straight line from Ellen Degeneres’s historic TV kiss or Senator Elizabeth Warren or Malala Yousafzai to Ms. Rich’s Diving Into The Wreck? No, I don’t. But I do think it’s a little like catching the A train by way of the J.

EP: For a while now, I’ve been thinking about how poets can render landscape—or, at the very least, the atmosphere of that landscape—in language. I believe increasingly that the sound of language can help render space and the sound that echoes around in that space. (In a workshop in Mexico several years ago, Tom Sleigh pointed me to the section of Wordsworth’s The Prelude in which ice skating was rendered more through sound than the actual description of the act.) Your poems, both of Render/An Apocalypse and the new ones I’ve seen in journals, always have a feeling of having a physical atmosphere beyond that rendered in the content of the language. This morning I was just rereading your two poems in the June 2015 issue of Poetry, and in “Something’s Coming but Never Does,” I’m just so struck by the sounds of its opening:

I follow locusts. I think they’re loyal, but it’s a story.
In morning’s bleached streets and nights
of tungsten glinting, their fretted steel legs
ticker the minutes. What do I know, except I need
a thing to walk behind.

Without going down the rabbit-hole of prosody here, let me just say that I get this sense of chasing after something, and I think it arrives with phrases like “tungsten glinting” in which consonants follow after one another, in much the same way the speaker is following locusts. (Not to mention that almost onomatopoeic “steel legs / ticker.”) In some ways, it strikes me that I most admire those poems that have onomatopoeic gestures, those places in which the sound of the language mimics the sounds in the dramatic situation and setting. Certainly, this could easily be overdone and heavy-handed; too willful and perhaps even easy. How do you find a balance between sound and content in your poems?

RGH: I’m not sure I know how or if I do that. I believe that every poem, or movement of poems, possesses its own song, shape, form; it is my job to listen deeply, to seek the song the poem is already singing. “Listen and dictate.” All I can tell you is I try to do this with as much integrity as I can wield on any given day.

Landscape or place is important to me. Wendell [Berry] teaches us that we are all of a place—that no human, no dollar, no tomato, and no poem is an isolate void of interconnection and interdependence. Beginning first with the place of a poem is a contemplative practice for me, as it teaches me how to be the small creature I am, in my now, endowed both with consequence and action.

EP: Is a poem a landscape?

RGH: Land is a corporeal space tuned to its lived history. A poem is a metaphoric space that is tuned to its now.

EP: Do we need poetry to attune ourselves to the present moment?

RGH: Well, I think we need to attune ourselves to the present moment, and I think reading, writing, and memorizing poetry is a real good way to practice that.

Sara Eliza Johnson: Pick an animal or plant that you think epitomizes your poetry and/or poetic process. That is, what animal or plant is the best metaphor for your poetics and why?

RGH: My dog Key. She is a Great Dane / Malinois mix, which is to say, she is big, smart, impatient to play, and full of grace. I don’t care about my own poetics, but I know she is what poetry has been in my life.

EP: Thank you for your time and work on this interview, Rebecca! Please provide us with a question for our next interviewee.

RGH: What is the TV show you most love and are most embarrassed to admit to in public?

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor, is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming March 2016), and three chapbooks including Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poetry appears in Agni, Boston Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. For more information, visit her website:

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Sara Eliza Johnson’s first book, Bone Map (2014), was selected for the 2013 National Poetry Series. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in the Boston Review, Ninth Letter, Pleiades, Meridian, the Best New Poets series, Salt Hill, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, two Winter Fellowships […]

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David Tomas Martinez’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry Magazine, Ploughshares, Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Oxford American, Forklift, Ohio, Poetry International, Gulf Coast, Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, Academy of American Poet’s Poem-A-Day, Poetry Foundation’s PoetryNow, Poetry Daily, Spork Press, Split This Rock, RHINO, Ampersand Review, Caldera Review, Verse […]

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Sarah Blake is the author of Mr. West, an unauthorized lyric biography of Kanye West, out with Wesleyan University Press. Named After Death is the title of her chapbook, forthcoming from Banango Editions. Her poems have appeared, or will soon, in The Kenyon Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Threepenny Review, and many […]

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